Aid to Sandy-Hit Synagogues Splits Jewish Lawmakers, Community Down the Middle

Shuls Need Help, But Some Cite Church-State Separation

Separation of Sandy and Shul: The superstorm did massive damage to synagogues including this one on Long Island. But the Jewish community is deeply divided on whether the federal government should provide aid to houses of worship, Sandy or no.
courtesy of temple israel of long beach
Separation of Sandy and Shul: The superstorm did massive damage to synagogues including this one on Long Island. But the Jewish community is deeply divided on whether the federal government should provide aid to houses of worship, Sandy or no.

By Seth Berkman

Published February 21, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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“According to one side, it requires a strict separation, and Jews have frequently favored that interpretation, although it doesn’t exactly say that in the First Amendment,” Sarna said. “They have often believed that the more government is separate from religious institutions, not giving them aid and not concerning themselves with religious institutions, the better it would be for religion generally and for minority faiths in particular.”

The other argument, according to Sarna, is that the First Amendment aims “to ensure that government doesn’t favor one religion over another.” An example is the placement of religious symbols in public areas during the holiday season, as long as all religions are represented.

Three months after the October 29 storm, Congress finally approved an aid package for the affected states. It will ultimately total $50 billion. But even before money was allocated, leaders from a broad range of Jewish groups, including the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Federations of North America, the New York Board of Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly and Agudath Israel, had already begun pressuring Congress to amend the law that makes houses of worship largely ineligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Groups like UJA-Federation of New York advised synagogues to apply for FEMA aid, particularly if they provided essential public services, such as schools or homeless shelters, institutions that are eligible to receive aid.

Yisroel Schulman, co-founder, president and attorney-in-charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group, told the Forward last December that organizations involved in critical charitable work should be covered; however, such labels would not be necessary if the current bill passed, as it would include buildings “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”

It’s an amendment to the FEMA law that has received bipartisan support in the House. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn also wrote a letter to FEMA recently, saying, “Churches, synagogues and mosques serve as a bedrock for our citizens and our communities,” and that recovery from a natural disaster “isn’t a matter of state sponsoring religion.”

But Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center, disagreed, saying that the bill “clearly raises issues on separation of church and state.”

“It’s government funding religious institutions and their buildings,” Saperstein said. He also echoed Nadler’s notion that the bill was rushed through the House. “We barely had time to focus on it in our office,” he said. “I hope the Senate will take time to look at this very carefully before moving into a constitutionally problematic area.”


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